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Saturday, 19 April 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Pyramid of the Dragon

This is a review of “Pyramid of the Dragon” an adventure module, ostensibly for Labyrinth Lord (but really usable for any D&D-variant), intended to be played by 4-6 characters of levels 5-7.  Its written by Peter Spahn, published by Small Niche Games.  This is a 28 page softcover (I am, as always, reviewing the print edition), with a colour cover featuring a nice illustration of two dragons fighting each other, and black and white interiors. Being relatively no-thrills, its only interior illustrations are regional and “dungeon” (actually pyramid) maps.

Now, as always with modules I want to be kind of careful of what I talk about: I don’t want to give away any “spoilers” that could mess up a group’s fun.  On the other hand, I want to be detailed enough that people will get what’s good or bad about the adventure.  In the case of Pyramid of the Dragon, I’d say this adventure is fairly good, containing both tried-and-true elements and some things that are a bit unusual.  I don’t think its quite as great as “blood moon rising” (the other Spahn module I reviewed) but its still well worth looking at.

In terms of placing, the adventure is very much generic enough that you could easily place it in any standard fantasy world; the adventure starts out “in media res” so its set up that it can work as though the start of the adventure appears as if it were a random encounter while on the road in an area called the “border hills” (replace with hills of your choice, obviously).

The picture on the cover is not just some kind of unrelated show-piece; rather, this adventure actually starts (and because that’s the start I think its safe from spoilers) with the PCs witnessing a fight between two dragons (a pretty impressive beginning, in my book).  There’s a slightly scripted part in this, though even there the author allows for options (for example, the PCs madly insisting on participating in the fight), but from this point the adventure evolves into a kind of semi-sandbox.  Great pains are taken to making the choices as open as possible; rather than just railroading the PCs from one place to another. The overall content of the adventure can be broadly divided into three parts: the fight with the dragon and its aftermath, a trip to find a ruined elemental temple occupied by degenerate frog-men (that alone already made me like this adventure that little bit extra!), and then a third part involving the hunt for an extremely powerful artifact.

Both the overland and “dungeon” parts of this adventure are fairly good; the content rewards careful rather than reckless play on the part of PCs. The temple, while far from the most exciting dungeon I’d ever witnessed is good for some solid adventuring.  Having run this adventure in a highly-modified fashion for my Albion game, I can say that its not impossible to complete the whole thing in a single session, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to have completed it in no more than three sessions unless the players are really dragging their feet or something weird is going on. The adventure includes stats for a few new magic items and monsters (and a couple of spells that are potentially new to Labyrinth Lord, apparently, even though they have actually been around for a long time elsewhere).

I can say that this adventure has a lot of the typical Spahn attention-to-detail, and would certainly provide a nice break from more standard dungeon-crawling fare for anyone running an old-school game. Quite a solid product, as far as adventures go.


Currently Smoking: Stanwell Pipe of the Year + Argento Latakia

(originally posted March 5, 2013; on the old blog)

Friday, 18 April 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Achtung! Cthulhu Keeper's and Investigator's Guides (part 2)

(note that this is the second part of the review of these two books; the earlier part, focused on the Investigator's book as this one does with the Keeper's, was presented in yesterday's blog entry and can also be found at this location on theRPGsite's reviews subforum)

The "Achtung! Cthulhu" Keeper's Guide begins with lengthy "Secret Chronologies" (i.e., of weird stuff) of the war in general and of the history of Nazi Germany.  These are mostly though not exclusively real-world weird events.  This section also contains an essay by Kenneth Hite advising GMs that they should avoid depicting the Nazis as "inhuman" and certainly avoid a campaign which suggests that the Nazi's evil was secretly caused by Mythos forces that were "behind it all" (as this, in essence, lets the monstrosity of the Nazis off the hook; as suddenly it wouldn't be their fault, but the fault of supernatural inhuman forces).  That's good and probably necessary advice for a lot of people to hear.

A section on the military follows, which provides unit and rank structures for the German forces, and some rules and guidelines for the allied war machine, including rules for things like obtaining supplies and handling injuries, and guidelines for how things like prisoners of war were handled. Statblocks are given (for both systems) for standard opponents: German infantry, officers, panzergrenadier, combat engineers, snipers, parachute veterans, mountain troops, German commandos, waffen-SS, and the Einsatzgruppe death squads.  Stats are also provided for different classes of US, UK, and French (both standard army and Free French veteran) soldiers.
Then there's a chapter on Intelligence, with significant details on the various MI branches of British Intelligence, the departments in charge of making secret weapons, the SOE, the PWE (the propaganda branch), and the LCS.  There's also details on the American OSS, Naval Intelligence, and FBI; and the Canadian "Camp X" and Hydra.  There's also details on the intelligence operations of French Resistance forces.  On the other side, there's information on the various intelligence branches of the Germans: the Abwehr (which in fact, under its director Wilhelm Canaris - who was personally responsible for saving the lives of several of my family members - secretly worked with the allied intelligence forces against the Nazi state trying to undermine it), the SD, and the Gestapo.

We then get to the chapter on Secret and Occult societies. Here we get into a seriously large section (50 pages of the book) on a variety of groups that are a mix of historical occult fact infused with Mythos-based fantasy.  There's real groups, some invented groups, and a couple that may or may not have been real.  A few significant figures in real occultism are mentioned, such as the incredible British magician Dion Fortune, or the fairly despicable German "volkish" magician Jorg Lanz "von" (in quotes because his claim to aristocracy was patently false) Liebenfels.  Fortune was the head of a real-life secret order called the Fraternity of the Inner Light who worked magically in real history to try to oppose the Nazi regime (in the game, they are active in the dreamlands under the guidance of the Elder Gods).  Liebenfels was the head of the influential but ultimately suppressed (in favor of even more overtly nazi groups) "Ordo Novi Templi", who had a huge influence in the esoteric details of the Nazi regime. 

Curiously, there are some very big names that are missing.  The authors chose to almost completely ignore Fortune's mentor Aleister Crowley, the biggest name in Occultism in the world at that time; who, although already an old man (but he would outlive both the war and Fortune) was tapped by his friend and contact Ian Fleming (also not mentioned in the book) to provide some occult intelligence in the early stages of the war, and was the inventor of the "V for Victory" sign (the Investigator's guide does have a brief sidebar box on the V sign and its creator, but that's the only mention they make of Crowley in either book, as far as I could find).  And there's no mention at all (again, unless I missed it) of Jack Parsons, the young and dashing millionaire playboy inventor who was Crowley's protege in America, working with the American branch of Crowley's Ordo Templi Orientis, and at the same time one of the head scientists of none other than the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he developed jet fuel and the rocket fuel that would eventually put man on the moon.  He was also involved (at exactly the same time) in sex-magic rites and desert invocations of great goddesses.  One would think that a guy who was a rock star of occultism in that period, and a very important scientist of the American war effort, would have been worth at least a mention. These omissions led me to wonder if whoever wrote this section for Achtung didn't have some kind of anti-Crowley bias going on.

In any case, there are several other historical, quasi-historical and pseudo-historical individuals and groups detailed in this lengthy chapters, ranging from the relatively serious, to the wacky, to groups like "Section M" and "Majestic" which are clearly set up to be organizations that justify the formation and patronage of a PC party.  These two are given a considerable amount of detail compared to some other groups, but wisely the most information and detail is given to the antagonist group the Nazi "Cult of the Black Sun" which are a magnificent mix of pure race-supremacist evil, theosophical bullshit about Atlantis and the Hyperborean age, the real-life Thule Society, and the Mythos.  The Black Sun was not a real occult group, but it is clearly based on a number of Nazi occult streams and movements, and from their inspirations (the 'black sun' symbol was a real symbol of the SS, and its ideas came from racialist-occult theories about the "Aryan Race", the "Vril-force" and ancient atlantis).

This is where we get to the most Mythos-laden area of the setting to date; and it makes clear that the Nazis, though not run by the Mythos, are clearly dabbling with it to a level far beyond the allies, who have nowhere near the equivalent magical resources.  Its true that historically, the Nazis were always far more interested in the Occult than the allied powers, but that didn't necessarily make them better at it.  Of course, in a Cthulhu game, magic usually equals "horrific things Man Was Not Meant to Know", so the setting is obliged to present the allies at the occult underdogs.  There's nothing really wrong with that from a game perspective, since it puts the PCs in the position of heroes facing very challenging odds.

The major (villainous) heads of the Black Sun are statted out for the keeper, as well as statblocks for the Black Sun foot soldiers and special forces. And of course, their twisted Cthuloid monstrosities.

There's also another group, the Nachtwolfe, who are the "Weird Mythos Science" group in place of the Black Sun's "Weird Mythos Sorcery" group.  They have access to dangerous remnants of inhuman "atlantean" technology.  Here at last we get some weird tech stuff that's almost the kind of "pulp" stuff I had in mind, except of course that most of it is tainted and dangerous.  Again, statblocks are provided for major players and common archetypes within the organization.

The next chapter slips back into normality, with rules on travel by air, train and ships, crossing borders during wartime, smuggling, and details on military vehicles of all sides (including tanks, trucks, planes, ships, and subs).  Stats are given for vehicles in both systems.

There's also stats for German weaponry (allied weaponry being presented in the Investigator's book).  We dip back into the esoteric with some special Mythos-powered weapons and equipment for the Black Sun and Nachtwolfe groups, and then after that there are rules and guidelines for creating your own custom weapons and vehicles.

The next chapter deals with CoC mechanics handling various combat situations, things like dogfights, fighting with tanks, artillery, mines, and bombings, naval conflicts, random encounters (table provided) during large-scale battles, rules guiding being in command of units, and sanity loss for the (non-mythos) horrors of war.  The following chapter is pretty much the same, only for Savage Worlds.

The section on Artefacts and Tomes is for both rule systems, and details some new full-blown mythos artifacts, again mostly stuff in Nazi hands.  There are descriptions of several Mythos tomes; some already well known to CoC players.  The latter are only given descriptions and Savage World rules, while the new tomes (or altered ones) are given stats for both systems.  Among the latter there are the grimoires "Cult of the Idisi", the "Hanseatic Codex", "Culte Des Femmes Guerrieres Du Nord", "Merseburg Incantations", "De Origine Et Situ Germanorum" (written by Tacitus), the "Codex Aesinas", and "The Complete Works of Tacitus".
This is followed up with rules for how to use Mythos Knowledge in Savage Worlds, modifying the existing SW magic rules to fit the mythos, and listing some of the best-known CoC spells to SW rules.  There are a few new spells as well, which have stats for both systems.

Then we have a list of the (more common) Gods of the Cthulhu Mythos, with some explanations. Savage Worlds rules follow for stats of the most common Mythos creatures (byakhee, Dark Young, Deep ones, Elder Things, Fire Vampires, Flying Polyps, Nightgaunts, Shoggoth, etc.).  Its quite a few pages of material that is neither new nor useful to CoC fans.  There are also some new monsters that get double-stats:  Bloodborn, Cold Ones, Cultists of the Old Ones, Die Draugar, Die Gefallenen (nazi zombies), Ldendorff's Golem, Manneskin, Augmented Mi-Go, and Servitors of Nyarlathotep.

The "allies and nemeses" section details information about a number of important major figures, including Eisenhower, J. Edgar Hoover, Patton, FDR, Churchill, Dr. Hugh Dalton, Sir Hugh Dowding, Lord Mountbatten, Daladier, De Gaulle, Max Moulin, Petain, Paul Reynaud, Wilhelm Canaris, Goring, Goebbels, Hess, Himmler, and Hitler. 
None of the above are given stats, but the chapter also contains descriptions and stats for typical NPCs of a variety of backgrounds: an air raid warden, a woman's auxiliary volunteer, a home guard volunteer, a local squire, police constable, postmistress, lifeboat volunteer, CID detective, black marketeer, war correspondent, French gendarme, partisan, refugee, resistance fighter, collaborator, Hitler youth, gestapo agent, ordnungspolizei, U.S. factor worker, gangster, G-man, and private eye. 
There's also some descriptions of sample locations: airfields, army base, boatyards, country house, farm, hospital, industrial town, research facility, university, and village.
This chapter is what I'd term "moderately useful"; I could see some of this material as being potentially usable, but at the same time a great deal of it probably didn't need to be either described or statted out.  The information about the really major figures in the war are reachable by a Google search (indeed, any of their Wikipedia entries would garner far more information); the sample NPC stats would only very occasionally serve any real purpose, and the location descriptions are largely self-explanatory.  There's a lot of pages (20 in total) taken up in this chapter for the actual value contained.

The final full chapter contains 10 adventure seeds, each relatively short (a few paragraphs) and not exactly complete but enough for a Keeper to build something decent out of.  They run the gamut of scenarios that make good use of the default setting and material.  I won't go into detail about them to avoid spoilers but they form the basis of a good start for a campaign (or several good starts, rather, as they represent a few different orientations for a campaign; it highlights effectively that the Achtung setting can be used in several different ways, depending on whether you're focusing on military, intelligence, the home front, or insurgency).

Finally, the book closes with a quick reference guide for where to find rules in either system (referencing pages in either CoC 6e, or SW, and the appropriate pages in the Acthung Cthulhu books).  There are also bullet-point summaries of some of the new rule or mechanic ideas. Then there's a long list of suggested reading, and an even longer list of Patron's names from the kickstarter.

So what can we conclude about both the Keeper's Guide and the "Achtung! Cthulhu" setting in general? 
The great part of these books are that they are visually stunning, quite detailed, and yet accessible to the reader and well laid out for actual use.  They provide all you need to at least start a fairly focused WWII-era campaign. 

You may not like this setting if you are hoping for a super-pulpy, or super-gonzo type of campaign.  This is Cthulhu in the classic sense, it is not a setting where the Mythos is at all played for laughs or taken lightly.  This is a game setting where the mythos is deadly serious, and where the PCs are not the kind of heroic pulp figures expected to walk away unscathed, or indeed to even walk away, from the supernatural horrors they might confront.  It is a darker game than the somewhat campy-sounding title or the notion itself might imply, particularly these days where it seems that the Mythos gets ever-more watered down into something campy.

Finally, I'll note that while a great deal of attention to historical and military detail is provided, the level of attention to detail for historical occultism, and its various opportunities, seems somewhat scatter-shot and incomplete, with at least a few glaring omissions (like Crowley and Parsons).

On the whole, however, a very impressive, and very beautiful project, well worth checking into.


Currently Smoking: Ben Wade Canadian + Image Latakia

Thursday, 17 April 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Achtung! Cthulhu: Investigator and Keeper's Guides (part 1)

This is a review of the two main handbooks for the "Achtung! Cthulhu" game, which is not a stand-alone RPG, but rather a very complete and detailed setting for playing Cthulhu mythos adventures during World War II.  These books thus require a system to play in; and the books are set up to support play with either Call of Cthulhu 6th Edition, or Savage Worlds.  They are written by Chris Birch et al., and published by Modiphius Entertainment.

The first thing that struck me about these books was just how impressive the production quality is.  Both are hardcover (the investigator's guide being about 145 pages long, the keeper's guide about 290).  Both have astounding covers, full colour interior with very impressive art, excellent layout, excellent maps of wartime Europe on the inside covers (front and back of the Investigator's guide - my only caveat being they could have put something else on the back- while the keeper's guide has a "secret europe" map on the front, and an advertisement on the back); and both books feature an attached bookmark-ribbon.  I'm a sucker for those; including them almost always scores you an extra point in the ratings!

Then we get to the content itself.  As it turns out, I personally ended up finding the books less fantastically useful at first reading then I had hoped.  But I realized that perhaps I was not really the target audience for these books, for several reasons.

First, I was expecting the setting on the whole to be very Pulpy.  I expected "Achtung! Cthulhu" to be all about out-there near-gonzo pulp heroes fighting Nazi Deep Ones with lots of 40s-super-tech and arcane mysteries.  If that's what you are hoping for, you will not really find Achtung to be satisfying; that's not what it's designed to do.   On the other hand, if you are hoping for a very detailed complete setting guide for running Call of Cthulhu in the way CoC is normally run (i.e., investigators who are not pulpy super-guys, going around looking into dark and dangerous things in a historical setting with great attention to detail) that will be what you'll be getting here.  Heroes in "Achtung! Cthulhu" are somewhere in between the weakling hapless-academics of a typical 1920s Cthulhu campaign and the super-trained experts of a Delta Green campaign.  They are already tough people (but totally within the boundaries of a "realistic" level of personal training and power) because they are already in the middle of the worst war history has known to date.  But they won't be flying rocket-jetpacks or dressing in flashy costumes with domino masks.  The style is a lot less "Inglorious Bastards" or "Indiana Jones" and much more "Saving Private Ryan" or "Valkyrie".

Second, I found that a lot of the material wasn't directly Cthulhu-related, but related to the historical emulation of the Second World War.  My first reaction to this was "I already know all this stuff"!  However, again, I'm not a standard case, and the information on the WWII era (not just the war but everything else about the period) is actually magnificently detailed here.  I already know it all because
a) I'm an historian, and even though WWII isn't my area of expertise, I've certainly taken a look at it.
b) I have a personal stake in the period, what with my personal family history being intimately intertwined with it, my family having lost their standing and fortune, lost two sets of great-grandparents in German Concentration Camps, having been forced to flee a homeland occupied first by Nazi Germany and then by a long and brutal Soviet Russian regime, and with at least three generations of my family having been seriously fucked-up by the scars of living through the war in Europe.
c) I had only just recently engaged in a very thorough researching of this very historical period in preparation for my Golden Age ICONS campaign.

So unless you've got that same background, you're almost invariably going to find the "historical recreation" segment of these books far more useful than I did.  And the detail is truly great: the Investigator's guide has material on British meal programs during the war, notes on the evolution of male and female fashion in the UK, US, and Germany during the course of the war, details on rationing, music, film, press censorship, etc.  There are decent timelines from the '30s to the late '40s for the UK, France, and US.  You also have very detailed information on the structure and nature of the armed services and Intelligence services for the UK, US, Germany, and the French resistance (not so for the Polish resistance, who were larger and more significant than the French resistance, in spite of the latter being better-known by having a more positive post-war PR machine - but then, the book focuses pretty exclusively on the western front).  Character creation guidelines (for CoC or SW alike) are very much framed around trying to make a tight historical context of service in the war effort (albeit with a wide variety of options).

So in other words, the central appeal of the books as written is going to be for those particular kinds of CoC-fans, today possibly in the majority, who really get off on a careful and detailed "reconstruction" (in play) of the historical era.  I have been told that this had always been the dominant style of CoC-play in most of Europe, and in North America it increasingly became so as repeated products made ever-increasing attempts to show off just how historically detailed they could become.  There's definitely nothing wrong with this; although if what you're looking for is something a little less serious and a bit more drawn to the action-adventure side of things you may find some of the information to be unnecessary to your needs.

The Investigator's Guide is meant for the players, of course, and mainly focuses on introducing players to the time period (with all the aforementioned details), and creating characters.  Character creation covers both systems, and as CoC and Savage Worlds are two very different games, this means that if you don't plan to run both at some point or another, at least some portions of the book will be useless to you.

The CoC material for character creation is detailed and well-organized.  You have procedures for generating characters from the U.S., from the British Commonwealth, or displaced exiles from one of the occupied nations of Europe.  There are random tables provided if you want to randomly choose your Commonwealth or Exile origin.  Likewise, there are random tables to determine your occupation, with separate tables for Civilian, Covert Ops, or Military. There are also amusing tables for randomly determining your connection to the Mythos. Each occupation has a description, plus information on earnings and connections, as well as a list of specializations. 

To generate a military character, there are some slightly different procedures.  Players decide whether to have their character enlist or be drafted (in the latter case, the branch of service is determined randomly).  Characters must then make a roll against their CON attribute to see whether they passed the physical tests of basic training. In some cases, they may be rejected outright (in which case they must instead choose a civilian occupation), or they may be relegated to rear-echelon roles, or they may be accepted, potentially with a bonus to their CON from the training regime.  Characters that pass basic training receive bonuses to a list of skills related to their branch of service. If a character meets certain prerequisites he may be eligible to receive NCO or Officer rank, which provides additional bonuses. There are optional rules allowing for a character to rise up the ranks by making a series of checks against a promotion table (with the risk that he may begin the game having already been wounded (and taken attribute damage) in the line of duty).

Civilian characters can also opt to attempt to enlist or be drafted, and will also gain benefits from doing so, although they will begin the game at their initial rank rather than play through the pre-game process of potential promotions.
There are rules too for elite occupations (e.g., the Scots Guards, the Commandos, Red Devils, Phantom, and the famous Devil's Brigade; though for some reason the latter here is only referred to by its formal name, the First Special Service Force, even though all the others are referred to by their popular monikers).

The Investigators' book also has new skills and updated skills, which are detailed in their own chapter.

Chapter 7 is a 20-page chapter with rules for character creation, along similar lines, but for the Savage Worlds system. 

Finally, there's a 15 page chapter of new equipment, for both systems, with important stats and tables for WW-era weapons.

That's the Investigator's Guide.  Again, quite useful as a sourcebook on WWII in general, and specifically if you want to make a standard CoC campaign but set it in WWII. I'll note that there is almost NOTHING here (aside from the aforementioned tables in the CoC character creation process) that is specifically mythos-related, or even supernatural at all.  If you had this book alone, it would make a very decent WWII-era BRP or SW book for historical and non-mythos play.  To get into the mythos part of things, you really need the Keeper's Guide.

(Continued tomorrow with part 2: the Keeper's Guide)


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Solitario + Rattray's Marlin Flake

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

On the Death of Magnificently Horrible Little Assholes

Its been long enough that I feel like I'm not spoilering anything at this point.  Really, if you haven't seen it by now, the hell with you.  Joffrey's dead.

And how great it was... but I wonder if this might not also be a problem?

You see, here's the thing:  Joffrey was a little cunt. But he wasn't just any cunt, thanks in part to the writing, in part to the director, and in large part to the truly excellent actor who portrays him (Jack Gleeson), Joffrey became the greatest cunt of all time.

We have hated Joffrey for four years now.  And the show has, miraculously, managed to ratchet up that hate in almost every episode.  Whenever you thought you couldn't hate Joffrey more, suddenly they found a way to make it possible.  He had no redeeming qualities, but more importantly he was just the perfect villain, it was almost impossible to feel any sympathy for him.  The closest you could come is to wish he had never been born; that, by the standards of normal human relationship toward this character, would be "extremely merciful". 

Wishing him a swift and painful death? That would still be well in the "merciful" range.

Jack Gleeson is an amazing actor, and I think perhaps what may have turned out to be a surprise even to the producers/directors themselves was just how great he'd be at being such an utter shit.  By all report, in real life Gleeson is a very likeable person, gentle and kind. He's studying theology (he's extremely intelligent, having won a scholarship to Trinity College (Dublin), and spends his time reading Soren Kierkegaard and smoking a pipe:

How's that for a famous pipe smoker!?  And from the looks of it, I can tell you its almost certainly a Peterson, which is just the right Irish pipe for a nice young Irish scholar.

So truly, he is a fucking amazing actor, if he, such a nice guy, can channel out all that horrific awfulness and become such an absolutely despicable little twat you just want to strangle with your bare hands.

And we will never see his kind again. Its impossible.
I refuse to believe that Game of Thrones will ever be capable of having a villain of his calibre.

And there's the rub.  The problem is, we might have been able to stand it if Tyrion died, or Aria died, or just about any character.  Because as awesome as those characters are, you can envision other equally awesome characters arising.  But no one, ever, will be as utterly magnificently god-fucking-awful as Joffrey.

And of course, even without having read a single novel, I knew that sooner or later Joffrey had to die. I assume he's died when the novels said he did, but I didn't know this out of spoilers.  Nor of course because its what usually happens to 'bad guys' in fantasy.  Game of Thrones doesn't do usual; but it DOES do credible.  There was no credible way, at this point, within the emulation of the world, that Joffrey would end up "winning" the Game of Thrones.  He was just too utterly useless; in the end, his own family would have killed him if no one else did. He was too unstable, too incompetent.  The little shit was doomed; and that was part of the fun, in fact, we closed the last episode with a situation that wasn't so much a "whodunnit" as a "who the fuck would not have done it?".  Just about EVERYONE at the wedding, and most people who've ever heard of Joffrey on Westeros, would have wanted him dead.   He was hated by all.

So now, we've had our great release of seeing the little fucker die; too quickly, not agonizing enough, but then again no death could possibly have been agonizing enough for what Joffrey merited.   Who will replace him? Who could we possibly hate as much?
There's no one.  I think the 'bastard of bolton' is being set up to take his place, but its just no contest.  Bolton's bastard is a sadist and a psychopath but so what? We've seen his kind before.  Plus, the sensation we get from that character is that he's just a mentally ill monster.  He's not the perfect combination of clearly cognizant of what he's doing, responsible for his own actions, and yet just utterly slimy anyways that was Joffrey Baratheon/Lannister. 

My concern is that the show will never be quite the same.  What we saw this weekend might well have been the high-water mark.  I'm sure there's tons of awesomeness to come, and tons of incredible awfulness too, but it'll never quite be the same to tune in to Game of Thrones without knowing that by the end of the hour you'd have found a whole new thing to hate about the most odious character television has ever produced.


Currently Smoking: Davidoff 400-series Apple + C&D's Pirate Kake

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Lords of Olympus: Unlimiting Bad Luck

Back in the old day when I was playing Amber, I was always kind of wary about just how much “bad stuff” my players could be allowed to take.  My feeling was that it might be too easy to abuse this; you could end up with parties full of ‘bad stuff’ people, and it might be very hard to effectively judge the differences between, say -20 and -50 bad stuff.

Over time, however, I started loosening up on that.  I took some sage advice from Erick Wujcik: that its always more interesting to let the players hoist themselves on their own petards. And when you consider “stuff” as a “bell curve”, as (just like every other attribute) a COMPARATIVE value, where just how lucky or unlucky a score is depends somewhat on the other players and their scores, it suddenly started to feel a lot easier for me to be able to quickly judge what was really meritorious of misfortune.

With the “luck” ability in Lords of Olympus, these principles are kept in place.  Of course, bad luck is always bad, and good luck is always good. It doesn’t matter if everyone else has way more good luck than you, or way less bad luck than you, its still not going to move you to that other shore in terms of actual effect.  And likewise, anyone who has more than about +20 luck or worse than -20 luck will still be a very extreme case, even if everyone else in the group is in the same boat.

But aside from those guidelines, what matters after that is how they are in comparison to the overall spread of the group’s luck.

To quote the book:
Rather than placing hard limits on Luck, the gamemaster should inform a character with really bad luck that he can and will make life miserable for him. Likewise, to counter players hoarding Luck, the gamemaster should explain that it is less-influential than powers or abilities.

If you’ve done that, and thus covered your bases, you shouldn’t be afraid of throwing the bad-luck book at a player who has gotten him or herself into serious points-debt. They’re literally asking for it.
And of course, some of the best drama can come out of presenting misfortune in an interesting and clever way; its better to provide bad luck that increases the sense of challenge and difficulty for the player, rather than just screws the player over irreparably. 

A lot of the best roleplaying I’ve seen in diceless games has come out of players dealing with their character’s abysmal luck.  And this is especially appropriate in Lords of Olympus;  they don't call them “Greek Tragedies” for nothing, you know.


Currently Smoking: Ben Wade Canadian + Image Latakia

(originally posted February 22, 2013; on the old blog)

Monday, 14 April 2014

Uncracked Monday: Privilege and "Narrative"

Today we present a couple of links, important in how they're interconnected.

First, if you have ever heard some fucking pseudoactivist douchebag talking about "privilege" online (no doubt while DEMANDING that someone else be silenced and not allowed to speak, usually to avoid having said douchebag's idiotic statements refuted by someone with a modicum of rational capability), you might have asked yourself "Wait, would I count as privileged?"
And if you did, you're an idiot, because that's a stupid fucking question. But now, you can get your question answered, as there is actually a convenient online test you can take to see just how privileged you are (or aren't).
That is not a joke, by the way; the implication is that it is a totally serious checklist-style test to determine where you rank in "privilege", no doubts for the purpose of expressing online victimhood, or bashing your chest in online forum threads with mea culpas about acknowledging your privilege so you can be purified in the holy fires of "political awareness" that thus allows you (in spite of your privilege) to make authoritative (politically correct) statements about the evils of western civilization, while condemning and silencing others for their ("unacknowledged") privilege.

I post this here because, as far as I can see, never has a pseudo-activist article done so much to inadvertently discredit its own cause as this.  Everyone is having great fun taking the test to find out how privileged they are!  It shows off just how much of a fucking stupid concept this whole thing really is.

You can't measure either human sensitivity or human accomplishment by a checklist of supposed disadvantages.  Much less human rights.  And I have never, ever seen the concept of "privileged" used for any purpose other than as a rhetorical tool by otherwise poorly-armed fashionable-college-leftists to try to silence any debate on one of their pet subjects before other people can interject with their pesky Truth.  And that's the fucking toxicity of the "privilege" idea: it suggests that before looking at certain arguments, and judging said arguments on their reasoning, on whether or not they are TRUE, we first must look at the person making the argument, and whether or not they fit a list of approved characteristics.  The highest of which is not actually to be in any way truly disadvantaged; in fact, the top-ranking person permitted to speak, whose voice (lip-service aside) clearly matters far more than that of, say, a black woman from a third-world country (who certainly does score high on the Privilege test), is the Liberal College Student/Graduate/Postgrad who, in spite of usually coming out of the most advantaged of backgrounds, has "checked" and "recognized" their privilege, and received the education they believe allows them to now qualified as the Intellectual Elite that have the right to determine for all the rest what is right or wrong, or who should get to speak or not speak, and whether or not we should actually pay attention to what is being said.  Because "truth" means NOTHING to these people (like good little postmodern relativists, they don't believe there is such a thing), what matters is "narrative".

Do you think I'm overstating my case?
Let us consider then, the recent incident with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who's initial presentation of an honorary degree at Brandeis University was rescinded.  It demonstrated that to pseudo-activists, "muslim" trumps "woman".  Not just woman, in that case, but Third-world Black Atheist Woman Victim of Genital Mutilation; she had every qualifier and she still lost the privilege game in the eyes of the First-world Upper Middle Class (mostly White) College Pseudo-activists because she did not fit their "narrative" about how a good third-world black woman ought to behave.  She was "insensitive" by "criticizing" Islam; note that they also don't give a fuck about Islam per se, but again it fits the larger "narrative": people who criticize Islam are usually evil patriarchal religious right-wingers who believe in western civilization and are thus Enemy #1.  To have a black female atheist criticizing Islam is, to them, in many ways worse than if a White Male Baptist were to have done so, because she risks harming the precious narrative, she risks confusing the whole story they've invented in their heads as a way to avoid having to deal with the actual tools that depend upon examining truth.
She's like a traitor.

Its clearly not just about "insensitivity".  Consider that a few years earlier Brandeis had given an honorary degree to a guy (Tony Kushner) who said some very offensive things about the state of Israel (to the point of suggesting it should not exist), and when challenged at the time, the college actually made this statement:

"(Brandeis) bestows honorary degrees as a means of acknowledging the outstanding accomplishments or contributions of individual men and women in any of a number of fields of human endeavor. Just as Brandeis does not inquire into the political opinions and beliefs of faculty or staff before appointing them, or students before offering admission, so too the University does not select honorary degree recipients on the basis of their political beliefs or opinions."

Apparently consistency or lack of hypocrisy is not a trait Brandeis values.

So if you believe in wiping out Israel, then apparently you're OK, even if you're a white guy, as long as you're saying in the right "narrative" (i.e. as a self-loathing liberal douchebag, and not, say, some redneck with a confederate flag; again, its all about the 'story', not what's true or not, the same statement of fact can be embraced or rejected by the Pseudoactivists based on who's making the statement).  But if you are a black woman who was genitally mutilated as a child, had to escape your country in fear of your life, and then had a dear friend murdered by a religious fanatic because he made a film about your story (with a note literally stabbed into his chest saying you were next), you're "privileged".

And that's the thing, "privilege" is always used, contrary to the claims of its Swine proponents, as a contest: as a comparison game to see who we should be most politically correct about.   The dude who wants Israel wiped off the face of the earth is not "privileged" compared to those lucky lucky jews (they haven't had anything bad happen to them in a while, right?), but Ayan Hirsi Ali is "privileged" compared to anyone who's still a Muslim because some Cultural Studies Major somewhere has decided it is so, in order to consistently fit the reality-bubble of Pseudoactivist Douchebaggery.  The whole thing is a grading scale for an intentionally constructed view of the world that rejects fact in favor of a specific 'story', rather than any true or accurate marker of suffering.  And even if it was the latter, it'd still be pretty fucking stupid.
Currently Smoking: Mastro de Paja Bent Apple + Dunhill 965

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Golden Age Campaign Update

The PCs closed out 1943, first with the Tehran conference, where FDR and Churchill finally met up with that fuckhead Stalin.  The Soviets, in my setting, were consistently frustrated by the fact that they had no superpowered individuals (while at the same time, of course, forbidding vigilantism).  The Americans had hordes of them, and western Europe had relatively less (with Germany having a few more than the rest in Europe, mainly due to super-science and very dark sorcery).   But the USSR had none at all.  So of course, the politburo came up with the first ever Soviet People's Hero:

Red Star!  He's really just one step from a propaganda tool; a soviet crack-shot soldier, who they decided was also politically loyal enough to be made into a ersatz (or would that be potempkin?) hero.

Starman, meanwhile, went on to get the PCs to investigate a case in the midwest of mysterious off-season tornadoes.  He was also secretly investigating some strange reports coming out of Smallville, Kansas. 

What most people don't realize about Starman is that he's a brilliant astrophysicist, and he believes that the reason why the U.S. has the most superheroes, Europe less, and Russia none, is that there was an incident in the mid-1930s that caused a bombardment of cosmic rays on earth, and these cosmic rays specifically fell, in their majority, on the northern half of the western hemisphere (its epicenter was Boston, which would explain why there's more east than west coast heroes, too).

Hmm.. that's odd, Starman's gravity rod uses cosmic rays for its power source doesn't it? The one he started building in the mid-30s?  And Starman's based in Boston, isn't he?  Well, must be a coincidence.  I'm sure he occasionally sounds horribly guilt-ridden for completely unrelated reasons.

Anyways, back to the tornadoes: Starman thought it might be some kind of superscience; the Inquisitor thought it was witchcraft!  It turned out to be her:

The Prairie Witch!  Who is actually not a witch, though she thinks she is.  Her powers, and her greenish skin, was gained due to exposure to radiation from a strange piece of meteor rock from around the Smallville area.   She was trying to frame the gypsy family that rejected her, and at the same time avenge herself on the various small midwestern towns that had spurned her and her family.

Anyways, that's it for today.  Next session it'll be 1944, and things will be intensifying as the war starts to reach fever pitch! Stay tuned.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Solitario Rhodesian + C&D's Pirate Kake